Putting Your Best Face Forward

Dear Funeral Director:

I’d like to ask you about the photographs that publish in the paper with the obituaries. I’m sure it’s their personal choice… but why do you think that some people decide to use a photograph from their younger days? I think doing this is confusing for the readers and I’d like to hear your opinion about it.

Thank you,
Jennifer S.
Stamford, CT

Dear Jennifer:
Thanks for sending in your question. When you read the obituary page of newspapers, you’ll notice that the photos of the deceased often show them to be much younger than they were at the time of death. If the age difference is significant, it can be confusing for readers because they will often pass by the obituary thinking that the familiar name belongs to someone else. This is especially true with military service photos because today’s dress uniforms and portraits are often very similar to the ones used in earlier conflicts. I totally understand the family’s desire to use a meaningful photo, and I love to look through old photos, but in my view as a funeral director, I usually suggest that families use a recent photo that friends will recognize in the obit, or to use two photos to show both ages.

I recently came across an interesting study that suggests that there’s more to this phenomenon than meets the eye. A trend has been identified where the age disparity of these photos grows greater as each year passes. The reasons behind this trend are not necessarily linked to vanity, as most photos in my experience are not chosen in advance by the deceased, but by their survivors.

The study took place in 2009 and it was explained in an article published in the Jerusalem Post after the findings were released. Here is an excerpt: “Researchers at Ohio State University looked at photographs published in The Plain Dealer of Cleveland and found that the number of obituary photographs showing the deceased at a much younger age more than doubled between 1967 and 1997. And women were more than twice as likely as men to have a youthful obituary photo, said OSU social work Prof. Keith Anderson, who coauthored the study. Anderson said either spouses or adult children of the deceased chose the photographs. They understandably wanted a photo that they thought represented their spouse or parent at his or her peak, he said. But what is remarkable is how we as a society define these peak years. In 1967, about 17 percent of the obituary photographs surveyed in the daily newspaper were “age-inappropriate” – meaning they showed the deceased at least 15 years younger than when they died. By 1997, the rate (among 400 obit photos) had increased to 36%. “Obituaries and their photographs are one reflection of our society.”

In the end, I tend to see this as you do… family’s choose obituary photos based on personal preference or upon consensus of the family members. But I find the Ohio State study interesting because it confirms what I’ve become increasingly aware of in my time as a funeral director… our society denies death’s inevitable nature and we’d rather ignore it than come to terms with our mortality.

Best regards,

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